They’re fun. But can STEM camps for girls really make a difference?

Middle school girls at the miniGEMS camp in San Antonio, Texas, write the code to operate their EV3 Lego robots. ZHIFENG HAN, UIW MINIGEMS 2018

This summer, 55 middle school girls in the Washington, D.C., area trained on a flight simulator, launched a high-altitude weather balloon, and went skydiving in an indoor wind tunnel. The camp was funded by two billionaires—one of whom is the president of the United States, who donated a quarter of his $400,000 annual salary.

The $100,000 gift from President Donald Trump, plus $125,000 from Steuart Walton, scion of the Walmart family fortune, enabled the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum to offer a high-end version of a growing phenomenon: summer camps that give young girls a chance to explore technology-dependent careers in which women are heavily underrepresented. Some, like this one focusing on commercial aviation, are restricted to girls and also target those from low-income families.

The premise for the camps is that hands-on activities led by women already working in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields will get girls excited about science and broaden their professional horizons. Educators say having role models and building self-confidence—the Smithsonian camp was called She Can—are essential precursors for girls to pursue a STEM career.

“[President Trump] and I have had many conversations about how best to put students’ needs first and ensure we are setting them up for a lifetime of success,” Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos declared in July 2017 when she announced Trump’s “generous gift.” Ten months later, when National Air and Space Museum Director Ellen Stofan laid out the details of the new camp, she said the goal was “to reveal to young women the opportunities available to them in all areas of aviation and encourage them to pursue a future in STEM.”

Despite such lofty rhetoric, the reality is that there’s no way of knowing whether such camps help nudge more women into STEM careers. There are also no data to suggest that greater spending results in more positive outcomes. (The Smithsonian raised $250,000 to put on two, 2-week sessions of She Can, some 10 times what it costs to run other STEM camps.) Ditto for measuring the impact of any number of other variables, including the camp’s subject matter, curriculum, duration, and student population.

The data don’t exist because researchers have conducted no high-quality evaluations of such programs. Most camps settle for a simple precamp and postcamp attitudinal survey. Any follow up is strictly anecdotal. Those who collect more data typically do so to bolster their pitches to prospective donors, not to study effectiveness or test various approaches. And forget about a randomized control trial. Educators say such an assessment would be impractical, intrusive, and the cost would be prohibitive.

That dearth of evidence hasn’t stopped educators and donors—including Trump—from investing in such efforts. And although some legal experts wonder whether such single-sex camps would pass muster in court, a growing number of organizations see them as a good opportunity to get girls excited about STEM.

A billionaire’s largess

Barbara Gruber already had a lot going for her when National Air and Space Museum officials asked her last summer to design a new, free STEM camp for girls. “Our museum inspires them,” says Gruber, who spent 2 years as teacher-in-residence at the museum before joining its regular staff in 2017 to handle school programming. “And we wanted to take the opportunity, if they really liked space, to introduce them to careers in STEM.”

Trump hadn’t specified the focus of the STEM summer camp he wanted to fund, nor the age or gender of the campers. But Gruber, a former middle school science teacher, knew that girls begin to think about their career goals at that age. So, she decided to target the middle school years.

The emphasis on aviation came from Walton, a member of the museum’s board who is the grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton and trustee for one of the country’s wealthiest family foundations. The 37-year-old philanthropist also controls his own pot of money apart from the family foundation, which focuses on the environment, elementary and secondary education, and the development of northwest Arkansas.

Walton founded a company that builds small composite aircraft and he flies a World War II–era British Spitfire in his spare time. Gruber says Walton is also passionate about trying to narrow the gender gap in the industry: Women constitute only 5% of commercial pilots, for example, and only 1% of captains.

“There is a great need to get more girls into aviation,” says Gruber, who is also learning to fly. “So, we decided that focusing on them was appropriate.”

The camp was located at the museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport in Chantilly, Virginia. The gleaming 71,000-square-meter hangerlike annex houses hundreds of historic planes and spacecraft, including the SR-71 “Blackbird” spy plane, the space shuttle Discovery, the supersonic Concorde commercial jet, and the Enola Gay B-29 that delivered the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan.

In addition to tapping into that trove, Gruber used the camp’s proximity to several aviation-related facilities to arrange a slew of field trips. In addition to indoor skydiving, the girls visited a regional air traffic control center as well as the Dulles tower, a school for aircraft mechanics, and a hangar housing a 30-meter reconstructed section of the fuselage of the 1996 TWA Flight 800 from New York City to Paris that crashed shortly after takeoff in one of the United State’s worst aviation disasters.

That visit, to the National Transportation Safety Board’s training center in Ashburn, Virginia, was a high point for the campers, Gruber says. It was also a reminder of the additional barriers into STEM that many girls face.

She Can campers and their teachers pose with the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane at the Air and Space Museum’s Virginia annex.


“One of the speakers made it clear that he didn’t think girls should be exposed to the wreckage,” recalls Katerina Kiriazopoulos, a secondary school science teacher from the Midwest who spent her summer working at the camp. “It was quite sexist. So that just reinforced in my mind the need for a camp like this.”

One of the campers’ first assignments was to design and build a capsule that would protect astronauts during re-entry. The payload was actually an egg, and re-entry was a 7-meter drop to a concrete floor in the basement of the annex. But the engineering constraints were real: They had 30 minutes and a hypothetical budget that they couldn’t exceed.

Working in a half-dozen small teams, the girls had to make a lot of decisions quickly. Would bubble wrap provide enough protection? Would an inexpensive coffee filter work as a parachute, or would they need to splurge on a few costly balloons?

In the midst of the chaos, one team suddenly broke into song. “Daddy said to be home by sundown,” rapped one camper, channeling one of the extraordinary Schuyler sisters featured in the wildly popular musical Hamilton. “Daddy doesn’t have to know,” answered her teammate. “Daddy said not to go downtown,” said a third. “Like I said, you’re free to go,” added the last member of the impromptu quartet. Then in unison: “But look around, look around. The revolution’s happening.”

STEM as a seed

It’s unlikely that the Schuyler sisters would be on the playlist of a STEM camp for teenage boys. But Michael Frye can attest to how music can fuel a revolution in how teenage girls think about engineering.

Frye is an associate professor of engineering at the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) in San Antonio, Texas. He’s also director of miniGEMS (Girls in Engineering, Mathematics, and Science), a free single-sex summer program for middle school girls launched in 2015. Despite its shoestring budget—this summer Frye served 108 girls in four, 2-week camps for less than $100,000—MiniGEMS has grown in size and scope since Frye started it to help girls to learn about robotics and coding. This year, for example, Frye added a music component after noticing how important it was to the campers.

“They sing a lot,” he says, “so we decided to capture that enthusiasm by developing a unit we call ‘the mathematics behind the music.’ It deals with the technology needed to record and visualize music. Each camp now has its own theme song, and this summer we hired a music major [from UIW] to work with the students.”

Every change in the miniGEMS format addressed an unanticipated need or strove to capitalize on an unexpected opportunity, Frye says. The first year, for example, he selected 25 girls from schools “where I already knew the teachers” to attend a 1-week camp. In 2016, he added a week and decided to focus on students from Title I (a federal education program that provides subsidized lunches to students from low-income families) schools. His goal was to reach girls who otherwise might never consider pursuing a STEM career.

But that demographic switch also meant that he needed to offer transportation. “Many of the kids in the first year were from affluent neighborhoods, and the parents could drop them off and pick them up,” he notes. “But working with Title I schools, we found that we had to go get them or they wouldn’t show up.”

The need for buses hid another obstacle in Frye’s path. “Food security turned out to be a big issue,” he says. “We started a breakfast program in 2016 because so many campers were coming to camp starving. The food was cheap but not very healthy, like pizza for lunch. As we got pressure from school officials to scale up, with more sessions to serve more girls, we decided to open up our own kitchen.”

Frye teamed up with the university’s nutrition department, and before long miniGEMS campers were also tending a garden on campus. “The kids love it, and there’s a lot of science in nutrition.”

MiniGEMS has always encouraged its campers to return for a second or third year, and some of them have graduated to become camp counselors and mentors. Frye believes that sustained exposure to STEM is a key to attracting more girls into the field. Next year, miniGEMS will launch a camp for high school girls as part of its continuing quest to meet the needs of the city’s low-income, largely Hispanic community.

“The kids we’re serving now come from pretty rough areas of the city,” Frye says. “We want miniGEMS to be an opportunity to step outside of their neighborhood into a safe environment in which they can talk about engineering. And this may be their only chance to see someone who looks like them and is an engineer.”

Unlike She Can, which asks applicants to write an essay on why they want to attend, miniGEMS relies on recruiting advice provided by local teachers with whom Frye has built relationships. He argues that the teachers are in the best position to know who might benefit from the experience—and who might have family obligations or other restrictions that would preclude them from attending. Some of the girls, he adds, might never nominate themselves because they have no idea what an engineer does, much less considered engineering as a career.

All these factors greatly complicate any attempt to measure whether miniGEMS—or any summer STEM experience for girls—improves their chances of pursuing a STEM degree or career. Frye admits that he never even thought about doing any type of evaluation until he began seeking outside funding to supplement a $15,000 state grant he received to kick-start the camp. (The program now runs on a combination of support from the university, volunteers, small donations from the community, and in-kind contributions.)

Frye has settled on two metrics to measure the camp’s impact on their academic careers: their overall school attendance, and whether they signed up for a STEM-oriented academic track in high school. Both require talking up the importance of science and math to their parents, something Frye does throughout the year.

Girls at the She Can camp must engineer a soft landing for their payload.


One and done

Some out-of-school STEM experiences for middle school girls recognize their limited ability to have a long-term impact and, accordingly, set a low bar from the start. That’s the case for the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, which runs an annual Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, a festival for more than 100 students in the greater Chicago, Illinois, area.

“Our goal is simply to be a resource and expose students to STEM careers,” says Lydia Finney, a beamline scientist at the lab’s Advanced Photon Source and the coordinator of the lab’s Women in Science and Technology program. “We want the girls to know that the stereotypes aren’t true and that, ‘Hey, you can do this, too.’”

Finney says there’s no attempt to track what happens to the students in high school and beyond. “They are minors, and we are hypersensitive about protecting their privacy,” Finney says.

It’s academic

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a free 2-week summer camp for middle school girls run by Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU’s) Engineering Research Accelerator has a decidedly academic bent. The 26 campers who participate in the Summer Engineering Experience for Girls program (SEE) are chosen from up to 80 applicants from the region. A local energy company puts up the $10,000 needed for instructional supplies and lunches for the campers. (CMU faculty and students donate their time, and the university provides the space and equipment.)

SEE campers participate in daily discussions with faculty members—this year’s theme was energy—and are expected to complete a research project. The camp serves girls from both high-achieving and low-performing schools. But Alicia Angemeer, who directs the camp along with her day job of helping engineering faculty describe the broader impacts of their research on federal grant applications, says the girls “need to show they can handle the math and the science. If they are behind the curve in those subjects, they will have trouble.”

Angemeer’s concern over the campers’ academic skills goes to the heart of another big obstacle to a rigorous evaluation of these camps. Their apparent success in nudging more girls into STEM is heavily influenced by how far down that path the girls were before they attended the camp. The SEE campers are probably much more aware of—and had more direct exposure to—STEM careers than those attending miniGEMS, for example.

She Can drew from both ends of the spectrum. The camp made an effort to attract students from Title 1 schools, but Gruber says only a handful of students from low-performing schools in Washington, D.C., even applied. In contrast, there was plenty of interest among students from more affluent suburban school districts in Maryland and northern Virginia.

A dearth of data

ScienceInsider could not find any rigorous studies evaluating the impact of STEM summer camps for girls on their academic choices. The closest example is a recently completed longitudinal evaluation of the impact of For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), a long-running after-school robotics competition. Although FIRST enrolls both girls and boys, one of its explicit goals is to reduce the gender gap in engineering. Its programs serve students in both middle and high school through teams that participate in local, regional, and national events.

The study, conducted by researchers at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, tracked 822 FIRST students and 451 comparable students for 5 years, starting in 2012. It found that the FIRST alumni were twice as likely to be interested in a computer science and engineering major at college than were a matched sample that did not participate in the program, and four times as likely to be considering a robotics major. The differences for girls (about 40% of the sample) were even greater: Female FIRST alumni were three times more likely to eye an engineering and computer science major than those in the control group, and five times more likely to be considering robotics.

At the same time, FIRST alumni of both genders were half as likely to major in biology as their peers, and were no better than the control group in displaying such important nonSTEM academic skills as teamwork and problem-solving. The data apply to 451 students who had completed at least 1 year of college, and researchers hope to continue studying them as they progress through school.

“We have a working hypothesis that, for girls interested in STEM, these experiences give them a chance to shine,” says study co-author Cathy Burack, a senior fellow at Brandeis’s Center for Youth and Communities. “And those spaces are much more limited for girls than for boys.”

Burack and her Brandeis colleague, Alan Melchior, have been working with FIRST since 2002. FIRST has spent $1.5 million on the 5-year longitudinal study, he says, “and there aren’t a lot of organizations that have such resources available. All youth development programs operate in an environment of scarcity.”

FIRST was founded on the premise that robotics is the key to unlocking a student’s interest in STEM. But Melchior thinks its format—a yearlong, hands-on competition, with highly motivated adults as mentors—is the real secret to its success. And camps can’t provide that same experience.

“There’s a big difference between that and a 2-week summer camp,” Melchior says. “My concern is with the dosage. The FIRST kids talk about how the program builds a social network and provides a home environment that is supportive. What’s the mechanism to preserve that positive environment after the camp ends?”

Burack says the team would love to examine such variables as whether the number of years in FIRST affects a student’s choice of career paths, as well as whether the reason the students join the program makes any difference to what path they take. But they don’t expect to have the chance to find out. “For that, you’d need to randomly assign kids to a variety of STEM programs,” she says. And that would be a very tough and costly thing to do.

MiniGEMS campers hone their computing skills.


How far can it fly?

Despite the lack of evaluation data, Frye is bent on expanding miniGEMS’s reach. “After seeing the extent of poverty in San Antonio, I knew I had to do something,” he says. “It’s a matter of social justice.”

He envisions serving thousands of middle and high school girls in the San Antonio area with an array of culturally appropriate programs. But that type of scale-up would require a major multiyear grant, he concedes.

In the meantime, his plans are more modest. Next year miniGEMS will expand to two floors of a university building that houses the school of mathematics, science, and engineering. And maybe he’ll find somebody to take over his job as project director—he serves as a volunteer—so he can spend more time on his full-time job as an engineering professor and running his lab.

In Virginia, Gruber is hopeful that the museum will be able to line up enough support to offer She Can again next summer. And although the data on its long-term impact may be lacking, she and her co-teachers believe the camp met its goal of opening girls’ eyes to a possible career in aviation or another STEM-related field.

“It’s more of lighting a spark within themselves, and the hope that it will lead them to apply to more camps like this and to seek out other programs that will let them continue with this type of enrichment,” says Kiriazopoulos, who hopes to share her She Can experience with her students when they return to school this week.

“We haven’t come up with anything quantitative,” she adds. “But in terms of the words they use, when they start talking about pitch, roll, and yaw, and elevators, ailerons, and rudders, you know that some of this has stuck.”